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Despite writing about Magic the Gathering on a weekly basis I wasn’t actually a fan of it when I was younger. Like many, I spent much of my childhood collecting Pokémon cards, and off and on I’ve added to this collection throughout the years. It means my collection is both extensive and eclectic in its mixture of cards.

Most people remember the classic incarnation of the Pokémon TCG; the era in which it was printed by Wizards of the Coast outside of Japan*. Here in the UK, they were sold pretty much everywhere. To my US audience being able to get trading cards in stores like Walmart or Target is nothing unusual, but here in the UK that was kind of a novel. Pokémon cards where everywhere during the period they were a full blow craze; their ubiquity added to their popularity. I know I wouldn’t have bought as much as I did if you couldn’t get them from literally every corner shop for a period of time.

pokemon sideAs quickly as they exploded, they seemed to disappear from the mass-market. Whenever I look over an old collection there is a period of petering out somewhere around where the Team Rocket expansion came out and certainly before the Gym Heroes and Gym Challenge era — a period I enjoyed immensely as a collector and fan of the games. It was nice to have cards attached to a recognizable gym leader. Even if some of the choices seemed like a stretch at the time.

I remember showing a friend of mine who was interested in how Pokémon cards had developed over the years an e-reader card with the weird yellow striped bar for use with an ill-fated Gameboy advance peripheral, and he looked like I’d just shown her an alien artefact. People get very attached to their era of collecting something, like those intolerable bores who yammer on about the “superiority” of the classic boarder of Magic the Gathering cards.

The odd thing is, the way I collect Pokémon is the opposite way I collect of Magic the Gathering. I’ll seek out a Magic card mainly for its mechanics; I want to build up a collection to play with. I’m not as bothered about completing sets. That’s a nice bonus, but it isn’t my focus. There are a lot of cards I simply have no interest because they are completely unplayable.

Conversely I collect Pokémon cards purely based on whether a set will look nice in my binder or not, and I will be a completionist when it comes to a set. This is part of the reason I have started collecting almost purely Japanese cards as they tend to have more of the art visible, they have better foiling/holographic effects, and are generally more pleasing to the eye. They are also sold in smaller sets with a better ratio of ultra-rare to common/uncommon cards.

Since I’m not as bothered about value and playability, I’m much more likely to crack open packs of Pokémon cards. Especially since you can get a Japanese booster box for around £20-£30 depending on the box. I guess you could say I’m much more “casual” about Pokémon — more easy-going. Nintendo have always been good about keeping these cards in pocket-money price range, and the aftermarket mostly reflects that barring secret rare cards, and full art cards.

For those uninitiated, Pokémon has a slightly confusing array of rarities and variants of each card; Common, Uncommon, Rare, Holographic, Reverse Holographic, EX, Full Art, Secret Rare, and all kinds of variants specific to their respective sets. Like the now ludicrously collectable crystal type cards and the recent introduction of the “half-art” cards. This sometimes feels like a gimmick, but mostly I think it keeps collecting and opening packs new and interesting as new ideas are tried out. It also makes most packs feel special. Well, apart from when you get lots of Trainer cards. Trainers are boring and always have been.

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I’ve not played an actual game of Pokémon in more than a decade; I know how to play and I’ve even looked up the various rule changes over the years to stay in touch, but it just doesn’t hold any appeal to me. Let’s face it, the Pokémon TCG is vastly mechanically inferior to something like Magic the Gathering from a design perspective. In many ways that lack of being beholden to competitive play means there is less rigidity in aspects of design. Especially in modern sets, there is a freer approach to art direction and a more varied style. The last few sets of Pokémon have had art ranging from abstract hand-painted, to 3D modelled, to digitally painted, and even a claymation aesthetic.

I’m glad they’ve gone back to the way cards looked in the eras I enjoyed most. The Neo sets even today boast some pretty impressive artwork with the same range of styles. It’s often overlooked, but there is a lot of great art out there we will only ever see through the tiny window of these cards; it’s a bit of a shame there is no repository of the full-size artwork for the very best of these works. You could have a Pokémon art exhibition based on this back-catalogue spanning decades. Many of us have shoeboxes full of these things. When we’re children we don’t give a second thought to the work that went into creating these strange paper objects.

I suppose a lot of people would be ashamed of being an adult collector of Pokémon cards; then again I suppose some people still think the same thing of adults still playing video games. I know a lot of avid adult collectors, but I still wouldn’t introduce myself as a “Collector of Japanese Pokémon cards” unless I was in a particular crowd.

Whoever is buying them, I’m kind of glad the Pokémon Trading Card Game is still a thing. And a thing that has largely kept in touch with its roots as a being aimed (and priced) towards younger players. One of these days I should actually redeem some of those code-cards you get in the English language packs and build a shamelessly optimal net-deck and crush the dreams of some children.

*As a side note the fact that Wizards of the Coast used to manufacture Pokémon cards means that newer packs of Magic the Gathering have the same new-card smell as old packs of Pokémon cards, whilst newer packs of Pokémon don’t. This seems like an unusual observation but your sense of smell is very closely linked to memory, so if you loved collecting Pokémon cards back in the day then this smell will probably transport you back to those times. One day I will figure out how to bottle new card smell because it is one of the most evocative smells in the world to long-time collectors.

 

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John Sweeney
John Sweeney is a terribly British man with a background in engineering. He writes long-form editorial content with analysis of gaming, games media and internet culture. He also does the occasional video game retrospective with a weekly column about Magic the Gathering thrown in for good measure. He also does most of our interviews for some reason, we have no idea why. A staunch supporter of free speech and consumer rights; skeptical of agenda driven media and suspicious of unaccoutable authority but always hopeful for change.